The Magazine

When Daniel Met Julian

The rise and fall of WikiLeaks

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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During a span of 22 months the website WikiLeaks.org morphed from a digital anarchist demonstration project into a semisuccessful international campaign against the American government. WikiLeaks solicited classified documents and then orchestrated a global media typhoon around them. The site​—​literally​—​gave direction to institutions such as the New York Times, London’s Guardian, and Der Spiegel, dictating publication schedules and deciding which outlets would publish what information.

Julian and Daniel

Jacob Appelbaum

At its high-water mark in the spring and summer of 2010, WikiLeaks appeared to be a new kind of organism: part media company, part NGO, part hacker hive, part activist crusade. In retrospect, WikiLeaks more closely resembles a bubble-era tech start-up. Puffed large by a combination of exaggeration, lies, and free labor, WikiLeaks was given an absurd valuation by both the media, which reported on and courted it, and the U.S. government, which feared it.

Today the WikiLeaks bubble has burst. The site’s founder, Julian Assange, is being prosecuted in Sweden for two counts of rape. Several of WikiLeaks’ high-level workers have resigned. A former media partner, the Guardian, has turned on Assange. And the site itself is no longer accepting submissions of leaked documents, saying only that they are trying to improve security and will return in the “near future.”

The hardest knock comes from Daniel Dom-scheit-Berg’s new memoir, Inside WikiLeaks. Dom-scheit-Berg was something like employee number two at WikiLeaks. He was one of the staffers who left when the organization descended into chaos last fall. His book is a gory tell-all, and no one​—​neither Assange nor Dom-scheit-Berg​—​gets off clean. Yet the most serious indictments it makes are of the elite media, who threw themselves at WikiLeaks, and the American government, which did nothing to stop the campaign.

Assange and Dom-scheit-Berg made for a very odd couple. They met in December 2007 at the annual Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin, a gathering of computer hackers and experts sponsored by Berlin’s Chaos Computer Club. At the time Dom-scheit-Berg worked in the IT department of an American company’s German headquarters. Assange, also known as the hacker “Mendax,” had recently started a website called WikiLeaks.

Assange was a strange duck. Dom-scheit-Berg reports that he wore multiple layers of clothing at all times​—​shirts under multiple jackets, two pairs of pants, and a thick roll of socks casing his feet. Only 36 years old, Assange had pure white hair. Whenever he was asked about this oddity, he told a different story of how his hair had gotten that way. Nonetheless, Assange had a compelling vision for his new website. He wanted to publish confidential documents in order to expose the hypocrisy and wrongdoing of governments and corporations.

WikiLeaks was not the first such website. In 1999, cryptome.org made a name for itself by publishing leaked lists of MI6 agents. And Assange wasn’t very far along in the project. But his idea held particular appeal for Dom-scheit-Berg, who appreciated its anarchist potential to undermine traditional power structures. “In the world we dreamed of,” Dom-scheit-Berg explains, “there would be no more bosses or hierarchies.”

Assange brought Dom-scheit-Berg in to help build out the site. At least by Dom-scheit-Berg’s accounting, he was an invaluable contributor. He helped create the back-end of the website and, as time progressed, took on executive duties, handling tasks as wide-ranging as public relations, fundraising, and network security​—​in addition to WikiLeaks’ bread-and-butter work of cleaning and posting leaked documents.

Like many anarchists, Dom-scheit-Berg was not a perfect employee. When he met Assange he was working for a firm that handled IT accounts for American corporations, including defense companies. He refused to work on those projects. As he became more involved in WikiLeaks, he began showing up at the office less frequently, claiming to be working from home when he was actually working for Assange. When his day job intruded on his avocation, he became increasingly hostile toward the people who paid him. (He was working for Assange for free.) In his book Dom-scheit-Berg explains that he became so annoyed by management that he sent a combative, company-wide email constructed so that it seemed to come from the German office’s boss. He then routed the email through an office printer so that its origins would be untraceable.

Crazy can only be managed for so long. Dom-scheit-Berg gradually came to believe that it was wrong for him to spend any time working for the employer who paid him because “not being able to do the work that you knew was more meaningful was a kind of prostitution.” Eventually, he decided to quit. Fortunately, he was able to arrange a severance package that paid him a full year’s salary​—​some 50,000 euros​—​for no longer pretending to do the work he hadn’t been doing. For his former employer, this was likely a bargain.

So liberated, Dom-scheit-Berg threw himself into WikiLeaks. The site’s chat room, he writes, became “my central channel to the outside world.” He gave up on a girlfriend. On his parents. On the outdoors. Dom-scheit-Berg explains that he mostly stayed in his apartment, working for WikiLeaks. The one place he regularly visited was a “lefty alternative macrobiotic shop where I bought my groceries.”

“I didn’t have much contact anymore with the nondigital world,” he says, “and the shop was one of the few places I still interacted with people face-to-face.” At his alternative macrobiotic shop he was among friends. The store always had newspapers lying around, but, he notes approvingly, they weren’t the mainstream mishmash. They were “small publications that wrote about the world from a queer and/or Marxist perspective.”

In 2009, Dom-scheit-Berg’s role with WikiLeaks became more vital: Assange came to live with him. Assange was a serial houseguest​—​he seems to have gone several years without having a permanent residence. As with many of his quirks, Assange explained his homelessness as an element of operational security; a necessary ruse to evade the sinister forces biting at his heels. But this practice may have been more of a financial, rather than a security, concern. Dom-scheit-Berg notes that Assange never paid for anything, or even carried any money on him, because, he claimed, he did not want the authorities to be able to trace his whereabouts.

Their time as roommates went about as well as could be expected. Which is to say that today, neither of them is in the dock for murder. Their conflicts were mercifully pedestrian. “Rarely was anything his fault,” Dom-scheit-Berg writes. “Instead he blamed banks, airport staff, urban planners, and, failing that, the State Department. No doubt it was the State Department that was responsible for dropping the cups that got broken while he was staying with me in Wiesbaden.” The creature who got the worst of the ordeal seems to have been Dom-scheit-Berg’s cat, Mr. Schmitt. “Julian was engaged in a constant battle for dominance​—​even with my cat,” he reports, before continuing​, ​quite seriously, that “[Mr. Schmitt] has neurosis stemming from the time when Julian was living with me.”

The situation improved somewhat when the two escaped their German confinement. As WikiLeaks became more famous, they went abroad, giving speeches and holding press conferences. While in Iceland they hit upon the idea of turning the tiny island nation into a free-press haven where entities like WikiLeaks could operate with impunity. They took their idea of a “data haven”​—​think of it as offshore banking for publishing and data transfers​—​from a novel by the sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson. In January 2010, the pair flew back to Iceland to get the relevant legislation passed by the Icelandic parliament. They figured it would take two, or perhaps three, weeks. They became bewildered, and then frustrated, when the elected representatives of Iceland proved uninterested in the self-serving policy prescriptions of two foreigners. While on the trip, Dom-scheit-Berg visited a tattoo parlor and began having the WikiLeaks logo inked onto his back. But the logo was big and the needle hurt, so he abandoned the project midway. His giant tattoo remains unfinished.

This, then, is the duo that shook the Western establishment, endangered the lives of soldiers and their local allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, plunged the diplomatic world into crisis, and prompted serious discussions about the nature of government in the digital age. 

For all its buffoonery, WikiLeaks had two smart design precepts. The first was a system, eventually built by Dom-scheit-Berg and a programmer he identifies only as “the architect,” which turned the website into a completely secure dead-drop. Leakers and whistleblowers who wanted to unload information could do so in total anonymity. The WikiLeaks site was configured in such a way that once a user reached the submission page, it was impossible for anyone​—​either a snooping third party or the WikiLeaks staff​—​to observe them. If the leaker uploaded documents to the WikiLeaks servers, the data were washed through so many interchanges and switchbacks that they became untraceable. Not even the WikiLeaks administrators had the ability to find the source of leaks.

WikiLeaks’ policy for handling information was -similarly clever: The site promised to publish every leak that came its way, in full, with no editing, in the order in which it arrived. This scheme encouraged leakers by assuring them that, whatever risks they incurred, their labors would at least bear fruit.

For a time, the system worked. WikiLeaks published damning documents about a shady Swiss bank and the Church of Scientology. They published 6,700 Congres-sional Research Service reports and documents showing that high-level executives had plundered an Icelandic bank just before it failed. (They also published items with no probative value​—​such as the hacked contents of Sarah Palin’s personal email account.) Assange and Dom-scheit-Berg were fêted by the hacker community and techno-utopians of the kind who idolize anarchist-philosopher Pierre-Joseph (“Property is theft!”) Proudhon. (Dom-scheit-Berg calls Proudhon’s What Is Property? “the most important book ever written.”)

But in 2010, the organizational focus of WikiLeaks changed. In April, the site published gun-camera video of a July 2007 American airstrike in Iraq that killed 18 people, including two journalists. It marked a significant departure from protocol. First, the video was pushed to the front of the queue and published ahead of other leaked material. Second, WikiLeaks manipulated the footage, editing it down, adding subtitles, giving it a sensational title, and even putting an antigovernment quotation from George Orwell at the beginning of the film. And finally, it marked the beginning of WikiLeaks’ partnership with the traditional media.

WikiLeaks debuted the video, which they titled “Collateral Murder,” in Washington, D.C., at the National Press Club. Reporters flocked to the story, and to WikiLeaks. Networks paid for the “rights” to air it. Four months later, when WikiLeaks received 91,000 leaked documents from U.S. Central Command in Afghanistan, the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel jumped at the chance to get exclusive access. In October, WikiLeaks published a similar cache of documents about the Iraq war. And in November, they published a mass of diplomatic cables. In each case, a harem of large media outlets​—​eventually Le Monde and Al Jazeera joined​—​eagerly disseminated the material, on terms dictated by WikiLeaks.

The media’s complicity in WikiLeaks’ agenda was astonishing. At one point, WikiLeaks ran into trouble with PayPal, which froze the organization’s assets. (WikiLeaks had registered with PayPal as a nonprofit, even though they were not.) Dom-scheit-Berg asked a New York Times reporter to intercede on their behalf. The reporter called PayPal and bullied the company, demanding to know why the assets of “a project being supported by the New York Times” were frozen. PayPal released the account immediately.

Throughout WikiLeaks’ aestas mirabilis the site was unmolested by Western governments, even as it sought to wreck American foreign policy and put soldiers in harm’s way. In 2010, Assange went so far as to change WikiLeaks’ mission statement. Where the site once labeled itself “the most aggressive press organization in the world,” Assange now called it “an insurgent operation.” His choice of words was not an accident.

Yet no one tried to put a halt to this insurgency. A handful of American companies, including PayPal, Amazon, Visa, and MasterCard, stopped doing business with WikiLeaks. France’s minister of industry demanded that a French Internet service provider drop WikiLeaks as a customer. (A French judge prevented the company from doing so.) And that was that. The prevailing belief was that the Internet bestowed magical powers and nothing could be done to stop Assange and his confederates. With thousands of anonymous volunteers and a secret, dispersed network of servers, WikiLeaks was bulletproof.

Only, WikiLeaks wasn’t quite as advertised. For starters, Dom-scheit-Berg admits that the website was far from impregnable. Early on, leakers submitting material were completely exposed to outside eyes. When a German tech writer pointed this out, Assange released a statement saying​—​untruthfully​—​“The article currently being spun about WikiLeaks source protection is false.” After the first story appeared pointing to their security holes, Assange and Dom-scheit-Berg conspired to mislead reporters about their operation. “To create the impression of unassailability to the outside world, you only had to make the context as complicated and confusing as possible,” Dom-scheit-Berg explains. “To that end, I would make my explanations of technical issues to journalists as complex as I could.” Prior to early 2010, Dom-scheit-Berg says, the entire site could have been taken down easily by an outsider.

Similarly, WikiLeaks’ human resources were vastly exaggerated. They had a single attorney who had offered them services pro bono, yet they pretended to have an army of lawyers. They accomplished this subterfuge by employing dozens of fake email addresses, which they used to communicate with the outside world. (Dom-scheit-Berg’s favorite alter ego was “Daniel Schmitt,” the name of his traumatized cat.)

How many sock-puppet emails did Assange and Dom-scheit-Berg use? Lots. “When ‘Thomas Bellman’ or ‘Leon from the tech department’ answered an email and promised to forward a request on to our legal services, it was usually just me,” Dom-scheit-Berg writes. “Julian, too, used a host of pseudonyms. .  .  . [E]ven today I don’t know whether some of the names are real people or alter egos of Julian Assange. ‘Jay Lim,’ for instance, is responsible for legal questions. Jay Lim? Someone Chinese, maybe? I’ve never met him. Nor did I ever have any contact with Chinese dissidents who, as rumor had it, were involved in setting up WikiLeaks.”

And not just the legal department:

The official number of volunteers we had was also, to put it mildly, grotesquely exaggerated. Even in the early days, we claimed that several thousand volunteers and hundreds of assistants supported us. This wasn’t perhaps a direct falsehood, but that number included everyone who had signed up for our mailing list. .  .  . But they didn’t do anything at all. They were just names. Not even names, really, just numbers.

And not just the volunteers, either:

The advisory board was a daring construction that had been set up before my time. Only one of the eight people listed as belonging to our advisory board publicly acknowledged a link to us.

When the other seven “board members” were eventually tracked down, they all denied having anything to do with WikiLeaks.

The organization’s first big story concerned a Swiss bank that was helping the super wealthy dodge taxes. WikiLeaks published a list of these tax dodgers. The leaker, however, had made a small mistake: One of the names was slightly transposed so that an innocent bystander in Germany was “outed” as a corrupt, tax-dodging plutocrat. The poor fellow contacted WikiLeaks begging them to make a correction. They did, sort of, adding the following note to the documents: “According to three independent sources, this document, the summary and some of the commentary are false or misleading. WikiLeaks is investigating the matter.”

It was gracious of them, except for one thing: “Three independent sources?” Dom-scheit-Berg explains: “That sounded good. Unfortunately it was made up.”

Domscheit-Berg claims that this was the only error in the history of WikiLeaks. If so, that’s an act of Providence because there was almost no verification of incoming documents. WikiLeaks publicly claimed that they conducted rigorous “authenticity checks” on all submissions to insure they were genuine. This was another half-truth. Dom-scheit-Berg says these authenticity checks were

a deceit I had forced myself to practice in hundreds of interviews. Until late 2009, no one except Julian and I checked the vast majority of documents that had been submitted. Strictly speaking, we weren’t lying when we said we had a pool of around eight hundred volunteer experts at our disposal. But we neglected to mention that we had no mechanism in place for integrating them into our workflow. None of them were able to access the material we received. Instead, Julian and I usually checked whether documents had been manipulated technologically and did a few Google searches to see whether they struck us as genuine. We could only hope that things would turn out all right.

And it wasn’t as though there weren’t signals that Assange and WikiLeaks might be working with unclean hands. When WikiLeaks approached the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel about publishing excerpts of the Afghan war diaries, the only condition the papers put on the agreement was that names be redacted to protect Afghan civilians on the ground. Assange objected, telling the assembled editors, “Well, they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” Eventually Assange relented, and his media partners forged ahead. But the week before the documents were to be published, the papers discovered that Assange had not done any redacting at all.

He was trying to snooker them. Assange’s plan was to postpone the redacting, get the big papers to run their stories, and then renege on his deal by publishing the full, unexpurgated documents. By chance, the papers discovered this double-dealing at the last minute, and forced him to scrub the documents. Despite Assange’s gambit, they continued their partnership.

There are, perhaps, ideological reasons why the media were so eager to join forces with WikiLeaks that they ignored all the signs that they were in league with bad actors. But there is no good explanation why the American government was so cowed by WikiLeaks as to be paralyzed. Even once WikiLeaks’ security apparatus was built, it would have been an easy matter to bring down the operation: Simply submit reams of fake​—​or even old and useless​—​documents. Such a flood would have paralyzed WikiLeaks’ meager human resources and, because of the protocols of anonymity, would have been impossible to trace.

We’re lucky that WikiLeaks was run by Julian Assange and Daniel Dom-scheit-Berg and not a more capable, stable group of anti-Americans. After a series of personal slights, Assange and Dom-scheit-Berg broke up on August 26, 2010. In an intense chat-room session, Assange suspended his former number two for “disloyalty, insubordination, and destabilization in a time of crisis.” Dom-scheit-Berg quit the group shortly thereafter. The architect went with him. When the pair left WikiLeaks, they returned control of the main server to Assange, but dismantled the security system they had built and reinstituted the primitive version that had existed before they came on board. History is written by the nerd with the superadmin access.

At the end of the day, it’s not even clear how much of WikiLeaks’ anti-Americanism had to do with America. At one point in his book, Dom-scheit-Berg visits Russia and is amazed at what a terrible, corrupt country it is. “You can say what you like about many people’s number-one enemy, the United States,” he writes, “but in Moscow the situation was also acute.”

So why didn’t WikiLeaks go after Vladimir Putin? Or perhaps China’s regime, with its litany of human rights violations? Or Iran, even, with its persecution of women, gays, and student protesters? In the most telling passage of Inside WikiLeaks, Dom-scheit-Berg admits that one of the big reasons “why we focused on the United States was the language barrier. None of us spoke Hebrew or Korean. It wasn’t easy to gauge the significance of a document even when it was written in English.”

The people who built WikiLeaks can be excused for their stupidity. But the people who enabled them and their assault on America should have known better.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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